Russell Henley: What It Feels Like in the Fire

Those that follow the PGA Tour know by now that PGA Tour Rookie, Russell Henley, won his very first event, the Sony Open in Hawaii, by three strokes over Tim Clark. He did it with exemplary control of himself under the intense pressure that professional golf produces.

In yesterday’s post, I quoted his immediate post-round interview where he talked about “free golf” and I suggested ways that golfers could feel that for themselves.

Unfortunately, the transcript of his post-round media center interview did not become available until Monday morning, but boy was it worth the wait. In so much of what he says, we have a highly conscious young man acutely aware of what the pressure was doing to his body and how his well-hidden emotions were alternately boosted and roiled by his caddie.

These feelings and emotions sometime take years for a player to identify; it’s the reason that some trudge the mini-tour fairways and backwaters of the Tour until they do. So it’s not often that we get this kind of high-quality feedback from a world class Tour pro. World class because with his prior year on the Tour and now this victory, Henley is now ranked No. 50 in the world.

So let’s begin with his body sensations:

Well, that’s the most nervous I’ve ever been.  I couldn’t feel my legs or my arms.  They were just numb and just moving fast and I felt like I couldn’t control them.  But I’ve been in that situation before, just not quite as dramatic.

I just tried to stay in the present.  I never — Todd [his caddie] kept telling me it’s not — get ready for a dog fight because Tim [Clark] is going to come charging, and I knew he was.

So I just tried to keep pretending I was 2‑down or 3‑down and losing and tried to keep on pressing and being aggressive and hitting good shots.  I didn’t hit all good shots, but I made some putts, and it was quite a feeling making that [8-footer] on 18.

Here he gives us evidence of the state of detachment in which the very best players play:

Some of the best…putting I’ve done under pressure for sure, by far, and I was adding up my scorecard, and I was like, oh, wait, I shot 29 on the back.  I didn’t even know I did.  I was just trying to keep my cool.  It was really difficult out there.

So obviously, even if he didn’t know exactly what he was shooting, he had a pretty good idea that he was playing very well. And when you know you’re playing very well, you can’t help but to start thinking about winning. The best players know that you can’t do that:

I was trying not to think about Augusta out there because I just — I kept telling myself this is a long year, you’re going to play this game for a long time, and be patient, and it doesn’t have to happen now.  Just everything I could to psych myself out of thinking about winning.  It worked.

During the Tuesday practice round, he realized that he was really hitting the ball well. But once again he was smart enough to modulate his thoughts and emotions while dealing with them in a way that was still empowering:

I remember saying to Todd walking up 9, I don’t care what happens this week or next week, I feel like I’m playing great right now. And I think something good is going to happen soon.  I feel like I picked up right where I left off with the season and kind of carried over my confidence, and here I am.

When you move up to playing week-to-week professional tournaments rather than the more leisurely schedule in college (University of Georgia), it’s not highly publicized that that requires a whole new skill set: travel and logistics. For that alone, he thought his year on the Tour was invaluable:

For me it’s everything.  Not everybody needs the experience before they get out here, but for me it’s probably the best thing for my golf game I’ve ever had to do, learn to travel, learn what worked for me, learn how many practice rounds I need, depending on the course, learn how much sleep I need to get.  I get used to the flow of a tournament, early‑late [Thursday/Friday tee times], late‑early, all those things are pretty big, and I learned at the very start, about the first 13 events, what didn’t work.  I played pretty awful in my opinion.  I think I made like 15 grand, and the last 10 or 12 was huge for me.

And his extraordinary putting on Sunday was not just momentary magic, he put a lot of hard work into his putting practice:

I’ve been focusing really hard on my putting lately in the off‑season.  I’ve been trying to hit at least a couple hundred putts a day, doing drills and just putting against myself trying to shoot under par on a nine‑hole putting contest against myself.  There’s not always somebody to putt with.  I like to putt against somebody when I practice. But I have been practicing my putting a lot and putting a lot of thought and effort into it, and it paid off.

Here’s another answer that points to how insular he was trying to keep himself; he knew he was playing well, but he didn’t want to get ahead of himself. But walking down 18, he couldn’t help himself but have a fleeting thought:

When Todd told me to hit a 3‑wood [for safety] instead of a driver [to score lower] on 18, we had talked about it, I figured I was in pretty good shape.  But I didn’t let myself think about it.

When I got onto the green and I had about a 10‑footer, Todd walked up to me, and I said, “What’s the deal,” and he said, “You’re” — I knew I was probably three shots up.  I hadn’t looked at a leaderboard, and he said, “three shots up.”  He said, “When you make this, come over and give me a hug, all right?”

I’ll tell you what I said to him:  I said, “Shut up.  We’re not done playing golf yet.”  That was just kind of — I wouldn’t say discipline, but how determined I was to stay in the present and not let up and keep attacking until I got done.  I don’t remember the rest.

Yeah, but. All this mental stuff is one thing, but how in the world did he tie it all together to shoot such an incredibly low score?

Playing to my strengths, trying not to do anything that I’m not capable of doing.  I mean, I know Tiger likes to work the ball right to left, left to right, and I know a lot of guys like to curve it, and I’ve never done that.

I just stick to what I know how to do.  However it feels on the range, I go play with it.  I stick to the same putting routine that I’ve always had.  I just try to do what I do.  What I do best is not put myself in my situation where I have to do something funky, and I think that definitely helps.

He had a real adventure on the 16th where he hooked his tee shot but ended up making a spectacular second shot to make birdie:

I hooked a hybrid.  I really — that swing from that tee is the most nervous I have ever been in my life.  I could not control, I felt like, my legs or my arms, and I just hit it, and it was into the sun, I couldn’t see it.  I know it was going left.

For that ball to stay in bounds, I don’t know where OB was, but for me to have a shot towards the green was probably the best break I’ve ever had.  Certainly the shot I hit in was not an easy shot.  I hit a pitching wedge from 160.  I had to go over a tree that was only 50 yards away that’s about 60 feet high.  So that’s one of the best shots I’ve ever hit.  I think to get that ball on the green and to get even a chance at birdie was definitely the biggest thing in my opinion.

So how much longer after that was he able to feel his legs?

I’d say when I was — walked out of the scoring tent.  I mean, everything that happened was just happening so fast, everybody rushes over and starts talking to you.  I still feel like I have a lot of adrenaline pumping through me right now.  Yeah, a little while after I got done.

But no man is an island and nowhere is that more evident than on the PGA Tour where you find your way to a good caddie and then partner up with him in a way that empowers you both:

Todd [Gjesvold] is a great player, too, and I got hooked up with him through some friends in Macon who go out and play Pebble Beach every year.  He’s been caddying at Pebble and Spyglass and Spanish Bay since like 91, and he can play, and he — on the mental side of it, the course management of it, it was big to have somebody like that who I feel like I can trust and just kind of listen.  I’ll just let him coach me around the course, and that definitely adds a lot to my confidence.

And how about the age-old problem of taking your game from the range to the course? How did he handle that?

I think the more I play, mentally I know — the more pressure you [subject yourself to], the more you realize how your mind works and what you really think about because your true instincts kind of come out.

Basically everything I thought about on the range and working on my swing just kind of went away.  I couldn’t do it anymore.  It didn’t work.  So I had to re‑find, redo everything, and the feelings I had in my swing because they were all so different than what I’m used to when there’s no pressure on me.  That’s kind of one of the things.  How my body reacts physically is a big thing that I learned a lot more about myself today for sure.

And finally, when he was asked about when he began to realize that he was a good putter, he ended up pointing to the transformation process: how you go about transforming yourself from a caterpillar into a butterfly:

Good putter?  You know, I think as I got older in high school, the more and more I played, the more high school events I played, I remember I would just keep hearing from people, man, he’s good at putting.  The more I heard that, the more it kind of got locked in my mind.

Once you get it locked in your mind, you feel like it’s your strength and it’s all you’ve heard, I think that’s what you start thinking.

In the meantime, it still doesn’t come easy. That’s why he hits “a couple hundred” practice putts a day.

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One Response to Russell Henley: What It Feels Like in the Fire

  1. wedgy winchester says:

    He’s right about the short game. One year I got lucky, and won the Long Drive. Not once in my 50 some years of golf, did I hear someone say ,”did you hear Wedgy only had 21 putts.” But many a time I heard , Wedgy drove such and such a hole, what he score, I think he made pars.